Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Baoku Moses: A Unity of Sounds

Like so many that have come before him, Baoku Moses left everything he knew in Nigeria and immigrated to the United States in hopes of a better life. Along with a few personal items, Moses brought something entirely unique and intangible: his exceptional skills as a drummer and dancer. Combining traditional African drumming and dancing into the modern sound of Afrobeat, Moses came equipped with hopes and a rare talent.

However, unlike many before him, Moses didn’t begin playing music until he was in his twenties. After a short stint working in the Nigerian film industry, Moses joined Ivory Ambassadors, a cultural organization that preserved, celebrated and taught traditional African music, drumming and dancing in 1996. Before joining Ivory, Baoku felt he was “blind” to his own culture. After becoming a company member, Baoku was immersed in the diverse traditional music of Nigeria and beyond. Music mesmerized him in a way that it had never before and he began contemplating the possibility of a life in music. From the outset of his training, it was apparent he had a creative and natural ability to write songs. Baoku explained that, “the training was intense, the exercises could make you cry, and it was very hard on the hands. We didn't use a microphone, everything was vigorous and very technical.” After learning various styles, Baoku quickly developed a unique approach as a “drummer dancer”, that is, on stage he had the ability and flexibility to dance while drumming. At Ivory, he learned the traditional music of over twenty five African tribes, absorbing their cultural practices, their rhythms, and their dances. By the end of his time at Ivory, Baoku had worked his way up to lead drummer, and began directing many music shows.

In 1997 Baoku first heard Afrobeat, the same year Fela Anikulapo Kuti died. Having never listened to much Afrobeat, Moses became intrigued and soon became entranced with its sound. As Baoku explains, “I began to eat it up like food, day and night, to listen to it, to rip it apart.” Baoku claims that Fela's spirit came to him, “Afrobeat became a calling for me from God, with Fela as the messenger. Within two days of first hearing it, I wrote my first Afrobeat song, within the space of a month, I don't know how many Afrobeat songs I wrote. We have a saying in Nigeria, no one can trap breeze or water.” Indeed, Afrobeat’s influence on Baoku's drumming can be heard in such tracks as “Free Nigeria” on his album Okodoro Oro with its infectious multi-layered rhythms and the hypnotic sound of the talking drum underlying the track.

Baoku is a gifted musician, but he also has a passionate commitment to justice as did Fela Kuti. After moving to Cincinnati, he has brought musicians from different genres together to perform in what he calls a “Unity Jam.” He started it in December 2009, as a way to use music to bring people together. The Image Afro-beat Band, his current group, also brings together musicians from different backgrounds. “Kowa de na sa” (‘everybody with their own’) is a song about unity. As he says, “The pain, the gain, suffering, smiling, situations, conditions, sadness, happiness, feeling and dying are all absolutely the same all over the world.” He does not believe that the Nigerian traditions should be preserved for Nigerians alone. Baoku embraces all people through his music. He wants to bring the rich rhythms of Africa to the public at large so that these musical traditions can be celebrated and preserved. He shares his understanding in teaching both children and adults. When I asked him about his understanding of unity, Baoku said, “One message that is important about unity is for people to begin to understand that we do need each other. The first thing I am is a person. It is not too hard for a rich person to look at a neighborhood and to see that the people are not eating three meals a day. People shouldn't suffer like this. People need other people to grow. They need each other to survive. They need to embrace each other.”

For more information about Baoku, you can visit http://www.baokutcr.com/

- Dorothy Johnson-Laird
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